Great expectations

18 surefire rules for successfully managing a bridal couple

By Jeff Kent and Kay Eskridge
Images By Kay Eskridge
First published in April 2005

Success with wedding couples begins and ends with communication. It’s up to the photographer to direct the bride and groom’s expectations for the coverage, products, and services they’re contracting.

True success with any bridal couple is to not only meet their expectations, but to exceed them,” says Phoenix photographer Kay Eskridge, PPA Certified, M.Photog.Cr., who has been successfully managing wedding couples for years. Her system relies on up-front clarity, meticulous documentation and a mutual sense of responsibility on the part of both photographer and customer.

Typically, Eskridge spends three or four hours with the couple discussing the details of the event. This investment of time pays off by preventing problems down the road, and is a positive entrée to doing future business with the couple.

During the customer’s initial inquiry, Eskridge or an associate collects basic information and schedules a consultation at the studio. This meeting helps Eskridge clarify the couple’s preferred style and determine their expectations for the wedding photography. Next comes a planning session, preferably with a trip to the venue, during which Eskridge establishes a timeline of the event coverage, with specifics of who, what, where and when.

For documentation and liability protection, Eskridge has the couple sign a well-constructed legal release, a checklist of the images she is expected to deliver, and a wedding inquiry/consultation form. This in-depth communication, both oral and written, has resulted in exemplary customer satisfaction. Below, Eskridge elaborates on her communication techniques.

1. Get the details. Establish good communication from the first phone call. Follow a phone consultation form of the basic questions, write down the caller’s answers, schedule a consultation, and create a customer file. When the couple comes in, you’ll have the preliminary questions out of the way, and can move on to the details.

2. Don’t rush it. Set aside enough time for the consultation to get through everything. Generally, we budget an hour, and leave half an hour free on either side, just in case. We want the couple to be at ease and not to feel any used-car-salesman pressure to sign on the dotted line. It’s a fact-finding mission for both of us.

3. Discover their expectations. Get the details. Don’t assume anything.

4. Ask the right questions from the start. What’s the couple’s style? The photography should represent who they really are, not your perception of them. Talk about what they’re looking for, not just what you can do for them.

5. Get on the same page stylistically. While we’re talking, we look at a lot of samples and albums that represent several different kinds of work. I ask them which album represents the style that best fits them. If they want to bring in magazines with the kind of images they like, that works, too.

6. Communication goes both ways. It’s important to make the clients accountable, too. It’s my responsibility to ask the right questions, and the couple’s responsibility to be forthcoming with their answers.

7. Define the lingo. Don’t assume that the couple understands your photography terminology. From the beginning, define terms like “photojournalism”—some brides think it’s the same as candid party pictures. If your idea of photojournalism is capturing moments and emotions without the subjects being aware of the camera, then you’d better discuss it with them.

8. Learn their story. At the consultation, I ask questions beyond the information on the phone inquiry form. I try to find out about the couple and their story. Where did they meet? How did he propose? This serves two purposes: It shows that I care, and it tells me the kind of people they are.

9. Find out what they don’t want. It’s another way of assuring they get what they want.

10. Use an image-request checklist. The primary goal of an image checklist is to make sure the couple has an opportunity to communicate exactly what they want. It not only helps you cover all the important information during the consultation and at the event, but also protects you afterwards. If a bride is upset that you didn’t photograph certain items, you can refer her to the checklist where you listed what she said she wanted you to cover. Refer to the checklist throughout the day of the event, and check it over at the end to be sure you’ve covered everything.

11. Tell them how you operate. I want the couple to understand each step of the process, so they will be realistic in what they expect us to accomplish. This conversation usually takes place during the planning session. We go over the timing for each stage of delivery, such as when to expect the previews and how long it will take to prepare the album.

12. Establish the timeline. This is where your checklist of important image requests comes in handy. Some couples don’t understand how long it takes to do things. They might want to allot 20 minutes for formal portraits, but with 50 people in different combinations. Remember, you are the professional and know what you can physically accomplish. Do not promise to provide everything they want if they’re unwilling to give you the time it takes to do it right. It’s better to under-promise and overachieve than to over-promise and fall short.

13. Say it again, Sam. At end of the meeting, I go back over my consultation form and reiterate everything we’ve discussed. I also confirm everything I’ve written down on the form and ask if there’s anything else I should know.

14. Inspect the site. Especially with venues unfamiliar to you, it’s critical to do a site inspection with the bride or groom. Try to do it at the same time of day as the wedding. You need to show them what you’re up against if they are to be realistic in their expectations.

15. It’s rudimentary. To the photographer, lighting and such technicalities are second nature, but not necessarily to the couple. You have to explain: Yes, I can take a picture at night, but the beautiful desert scenery that you paid $30,000 for, well, you’re not going to see it once the sun goes down. It’s a simple matter of explaining your limitations.

16. Promise only what you can deliver. Let the couple know that you are responsible only for the variables under your control. What if your album manufacturer has a problem? What if another vendor doesn’t deliver? What if a member of the bridal party is late? You can’t be held accountable for situations that arise because of other people’s shortcomings.

Likewise, it’s a good idea to give approximate turnarounds for product delivery rather than guaranteeing a specific date. That gives you flexibility if one of the other vendors comes up short.

17. Keep them in the loop. I take detailed notes throughout the process, during every conversation. Good note- taking is an invaluable part of what we do so that we have records of what we say. Then I give the couple a folder of all the information, so we’re all on the same page.

18. Be a friend to the couple. Keep in mind that you’re the professional. You do this every Saturday night, and perhaps it’s the couple’s first time. Be considerate of this. Explain everything to them. Remember, they’re going to talk to their friends and family about you. If your goal is to establish an ongoing business relationship, and also gain referrals from them, their satisfaction is paramount.

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